A book on Akka, as Lingayat row rages

A book on Akka, as Lingayat row rages

Bengaluru-based writer Mukunda Rao's latest book 'Sky-Clad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Akka Mahadevi', tells the story of one of the foremost feminist and spiritual icons of Indian history.

It is a comprehensive new reading of her story, "one where the body is seen not as the prison of the mind or soul, but as the ground of intelligence, creativity and enlightenment."

Mukunda Rao, who taught English at a college in Bengaluru for about three decades, has written novels, plays, and books on Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Buddha and philosopher U G Krishnamurthy.

Ahead of his book launch on Sunday, Rajitha Menon asked him about the subject of his latest book.

Why Akka Mahadevi?

Akka was a fascinating person. Unfortunately, not many people know about her outside Karnataka. Her life, her journey and the potential she was able to realise are remarkable.

Which books provided the material for your novel?

Many, some dating back to the 15th century. A more important source is 'vachana' poetry, which give you a sense of the kind of person she was.

Akka is worshipped and revered by the pious, and at the same time seen as a symbol of rebellion and defiance....

Many like Akka and Allama Prabhu, even Ramana Maharshi, continue to be put in the religious frame. Within that, there is very little you can understand about them. Their writings indicate the possibility of realisation of great human potential. That is how they should be approached, and not through the confines of religion.

How do you separate myth from history when it comes to Akka?

The so-called history is also largely fictional (laughs). There are different perspectives on history. When you look at it that way, this question doesn't arise.

Which of Akka's vachanas do you like the most?

There are so many, I can't pinpoint any unless I open a book and read. Her vachanas show her evolution; there is bhakti, love, a sense of wonder, and ultimately you see her going beyond the binaries.

What about the 12th century poet would you say is relevant to today's young people, especially the millennials?

Relevance is also politicised from time to time. Human beings have been the same for thousands of years, everywhere in the world. I think these writings speak to us even now. An Akka Mahadevi, Buddha or Ramana are more relevant today than some of our cultural and political leaders. Religion has become dictatorial, it is spirituality which is democratic and pluralistic.

What challenges did you face while writing your book?

Most of the old texts are hagiographies; they put their subjects on a pedestal and make them totally irrelevant to your life. This disconnect should be overcome and we must look at them as human beings - what they tried to achieve, what their aspirations were, what they experienced, what kind of life they led.

What is your take on the separate religion status for Lingayats, since Akka is one of the leading lights of the faith?

This is controversial. In the vachanas of the 12th century vachanakaras, you don't see any mention of the terms 'Veerashaiva' or 'Lingayat'. I believe a group called 'Veerashaiva' existed at the time of Basavanna; he didn't have a very high opinion of them as they accepted the authority of the Vedas. I asked an elderly woman born in a Lingayat family what she thought of the controversy, and she said, 'It doesn't mean anything to me; I am a Shiva devotee'. That's how the vachankaras saw themselves.

 

Poetry of intensity

Akka Mahadevi is a revered figure in Indian literature. She lived in the 12th century and wrote vachanas, spontaneous mystical poems that defied literary and social conventions. She was one of the most inspiring voices of the bhakti movement led by Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. Akka shunned clothes and celebrated her body as a seat of divinity. Her poetry is intensely lyrical, and she is studied across the world for her radical approach to life and spirituality. Her poetry is available in English translation. A K Ramanujan's Speaking of Siva (Penguin) features lovely translations of some of her verses. Mukunda Rao's Sky-Clad is a rare attempt to tell her story in English. Women poets in languages across India cite Akka as a prime inspiration.

 

Launch on Sunday

Film director Kavitha Lankesh releases the book 'Sky-Clad' at 10.30 am on April 15 at Ranga Shankara. The book is priced at Rs 299 and is also available online.

 

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